In John Turturro's Illuminata, there is very little distinction between the costumes the cast of theatrical turn-of-the-century New York characters wear off- and onstage. "That was really the point of it," says costume designer Donna Zakowska. "It's about the theatre of life, how life and theatre are connected, and how the actual theatre is a valid place for expressing so many very important, essential ideas in one's life."

Nor was the Belle Epoque Manhattan setting for the film's repertory company, made up of European and American actors, adhered to religiously. "It's not really European, but not exactly American," says Zakowksa of Illuminata's aesthetic. "I felt we had to create the vocabulary for it. For years, I designed the Big Apple Circus in addition to working in theatre. So I brought that into it--my feelings about the circus, and about clowns, and how that plays a part in theatre, particularly in earlier forms."

The film's story centers on the attempts of the company's resident playwright (Turturro) to finish and stage his new play, Illuminata, with his actress-lover (Katherine Borowitz) in the lead. A foppish critic (Christopher Walken), seductive diva (Susan Sarandon), and various other members of the movie's ensemble (Bill Irwin, Ben Gazzara, Beverly D'Angelo, Donal McCann) provide both complications and additional color to the proceedings.

Zakowska researched theatrical journals from the period, which were filled with illustrations of "people covering themselves with flowers," and filtered the images through "a more contemporary concept of fashion, particularly Japanese fashion." Sarandon's character, for example, wears a green robe that's highly suggestive of a kimono. "I also looked at Gabrielle D'Annuncio's primitive designs for Cavalleria Rusticana, which were inspirational for the early plays in Illuminata," the designer says. "The last play is much more influenced by a Scandinavian, Munch kind of imagery. By the end, all of the circus and vaudevillian colors give way to pale blue and white."

In addition to costume design, Zakowska gets a co-conceptual design credit with Roman Paska--who contributes several striking puppet sequences--on Illuminata. "I was very involved in the project in the early stages, and played a big part in the way we dealt with visual elements, from costumes to puppets to sets," explains the designer, who roomed with Turturro at Yale Drama School and worked on his 1992 directorial debut film, Mac.

In addition to the Big Apple Circus, Zakowska's varied background encompasses painting studies at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, and designs for opera, live puppet performances by Paska, and studio films like One True Thing and Forces of Nature. Even so, she says, "Only my theatre background made me able to do what I did on Illuminata." Dozens of costumes for the movie, which was shot in an old New Jersey theatre that is now a Catholic school, were constructed at several New York shops, and hundreds more were bought and reconstructed. But money was not plentiful. "We had about a $140,000 budget," says Zakowska. "It was like doing an Off Broadway show."

Illuminata was released by Artisan Entertainment in August.